There is fantasy that’s awe-inspiring, life-changing, creating a world so absorbing and all-encompassing that, to devotees, it begins to exist alongside ours. I am a fan. Then there is the kind that’s silly and diverting, sometimes admirably clever, sometimes murky, sometimes head-scratching. What I saw in Night Watch, the Russian sensation that promises to be “the first chapter in an epic horror trilogy,” is something that fell into the first category on the page, and something that stumbles ass-first into the second on the screen. The film is half-baked, overstuffed and oddly hollow at the same time, but at its core it’s so intriguing, so fascinating, that without having read the novel, I suspect there’s something to it, in a big way.
The idea, briefly, is that unbeknownst to most of humanity, the world is populated by Others — forces of good or evil, aligned according to their preference. A Long Time Ago, they battled it out, but, evenly matched, they formed a truce wherein the choice of sides would remain a matter of human free will, with neither the light Others nor the dark Others permitted to force the issue. To enforce the truce, the Night Watch, comprised of light Others, would police the dark Others, and vice versa with the Day Watch.
There is brilliance at the margins. I loved how the sides deal with each other with a formality that approaches legalism. We see the Night Watch arresting a dark Other who broke the rules, and the process requires filling out forms, talking of statutes violated and the truce broken. Later, when the Night Watch is confronted after rather brutally overreaching, their stonewalling would make any police department in the country proud. And there’s some interesting if undercooked substance in the notion that the light Others have a hand in licensing the dark ones.
I liked, too, the moral dimension of the story. The notion that “it is easier to extinguish the Light within oneself than to scatter the Darkness around” isn’t new, but it’s a fascinating landscape within which to set an epic fantasy. Night Watch explores its implications only rudimentarily, though sometimes in subtle ways (the first scene with the protagonist, often replayed in flashback, continues to take on significance), but there’s more here, both in the promised sequels, and in the source material.
Some elements, meanwhile, are so underdeveloped as to be neither here nor there. Most prominently, the film for some reason decides to make the dark Others into vampires, something that doesn’t seem to serve much of a function aside from providing certain minor plot points. It seems for all the world like something lifted from a sprawling novel, with all of the background and context excised, leaving the concept just sort of sitting there.
A lot of Night Watch is this way. The story feels incomplete and vaguely arbitrary — we see the headquarters of the Night Watch, but don’t get a sense of who works there or what they do; the characters don’t really stick; part of the plot involves a prophecy that sounds like it was made up on the spot. But this is coupled with the gratifying feeling that we’re but dipping our toes into something much larger. It’s frustrating, and clumsy, and to be honest pretty ugly. Yet there’s something to it.